In 1999 my research into Renaissance dance led me to study other movement-based disciplines of the period. Horsemanship proved quite fruitful. However it quickly became evident that there was little scholarship in this area. Modern studies generally focus on the French style of the Baroque era, which began with la Broue and Pluvinel, and mostly ignore or examine only cursory elements of the Italian style from which their work grew. Even assembling a bibliography of primary sources turned out to be challenging. I offer this page as a service to others how may wish to study this field. Below you will find a bibliography, and some basic commentary. I hope it helps! Comments are welcome.
In the 1500s riding was changing from a battlefield skill performed in heavy armour to an art performed for pleasure and the demonstration of skill to onlookers. The new availability, in 1534, of Xenophon's classical treatise on horsemanship brought a new humanism to the art, and set an example for later writers. Riding schools flourished under the patronage of the Gonzaga and the d'Este (MacDonald).
The foremost schools were in Naples and Ferrara. The Neopolitan school of Gianbattista Pignatelli, probably founded early in the century, was likely the first. It was certainly the most well-regarded and influential of the schools of the new riding style. The cavallerizzi (theorists of the art of riding) associated with Pignatelli's school include the writers of some of the most influential horsemanship treatises: Grisone, Fiaschi, la Broue, and Pluvinel. Pignatelli's students came from all over Europe, and many went on to teach in courts throughout Europe. Two other influential treatise writers were Claudio Corte and Pasqual Caracciolo.
Modern study of the Italian treatises is problematic, as they are not available in modern editions, and are usually not even available on microfilm or fiche. A further problem is the near total lack of scholarly works on the topic.
The material covered in the treatises falls into several categories, of which the training of horsemen and horses is the most relevant. A typical treatment covers:
a) Basic movements and corrections. All trained horses must be able to perform on command a number of movements including efficient stops, `light' turns, and backwards movement. These must be done in several different gaits, each having their own speed and character. The rider must learn how to train the horse to do this, including the use of a system of signals to communicate with, and sometimes coerce, the horse.
b) The maneggii (manages). These are exercises involving the handling of a horse in the performance of specific movements and gaits in particular patterns on the ground.
c) Advanced movements. Various leaps, capriole, corvette, and the galloppo gagliardo. These are reserved for horses which are gagliardo (strong, nimble, and spirited) and `light by art and by nature.' They are intended for display and pleasure, not military service. The lighter and more agile breeds being introduced to the Italian penninsula at this time were able to perform the showy dance-like movements of the new art. These were unsuited to the traditional heavy war horses.
d) Display before a prince.